With his small but mighty catalog of small, quirky, and disarmingly touching films, writer/director Thomas McCarthy has established a style all his own. Given the coherent yet also diverse mixture of his work so far—The Station Agent, The Visitor, and now the oddball delight Win Win—we can readily detect a bold but also uncommonly subtle trilogy, however unintended, blessed with a distinctly McCarthy-esque quality. Quirky character studies are McCarthy’s thing, celebrating marginal yet believable figures who gain strength and work through adversity from the kindness of strangers.
Win Win tells the deceptively simple tale of a struggling lawyer and wrestling coach (Paul Giamatti) in suburban New Jersey, who, through circumstances both compassionate and ethically tainted, finds himself hosting a sullen teen who happens to be a wrestling champion (newcomer Alex Shaffer, who steals the show here with minimalist’s aplomb). In one sense, Win Win is a variation on the sports-film theme, in which the sporting life and one-on-one combat of wrestling become a metaphor for the challenges of navigating life and society—especially in the face of obstacles like a drug-addled mother and guardian angels with dark secrets.
Locally speaking, Santa Barbarans continue to have a vested sentimental interest in unlikely movie star Paul Giamatti—who, in Sideways, traipsed tipsily through the Santa Ynez Valley on a pinot-fueled midlife rogue’s journey. Giamatti was about the only redeeming virtue in the recent Canadian film Barney’s Version and finds his rightful place in McCarthy’s world as the well-meaning, mostly virtuous, but also morally compromised anchor of this tale.
As Peter Dinklage did in The Station Agent and Richard Jenkins did in The Visitor, Giamatti fits the bill precisely here, just as he was the right actor for the job in Sideways. That film came to us courtesy of writer/director Alexander Payne, another American film maverick with a big heart, like McCarthy. The broader takeaway message here may be that magic happens in the margins, in real life and in American cinema.